‘Each McDonald’s burger has two pickles, a pinch of onions and a precise shot of ketchup and mustard’. It’s consistency and uniformity that define the fast food industry, you always know what you’re going to get for your money. Taking a similar ethos and methodology as its driving force, The Founder, latest from the Weinstein Company, runs with a conventional plot adding to its consistency a smattering more flavour than you might expect.
Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a bored-with-life travelling salesman, flogging milkshake makers to equally uninspired businessmen c.1954 when he receives an order for six of them – that’s thirty milkshakes at a time – from two brothers: Maurice and Richard McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch). Directed by John Lee Hancock, The Founder charts the expansion of ‘Mac’ and ‘Dick’’s little known innovative takeaway, ‘McDonald’s Hamburgers’, in San Bernardino, California, into the (slightly better known) supersized fast food giant which inhabits every other street in the world today. The film opens with Kroc wiling away his days glumly trudging diner-to-diner, finding only slow and poor service. All the while, this dynamic duo have done to catering what Ford did to cars and are providing beaming queues of all ages with food fast and a smile. Unfortunately for them, Kroc is about to do for the McDonald’s what Marc Anthony did to Caesar. Initially, this simply means franchise, the original values held in check by a well written contract from the brothers. However, Kroc’s ambitions are imperial and sit markedly in contrast to Mac and Dick’s American ideals – ‘McDonald’s means family’ being their frequent idiom. A sad contrast to family implying profit potential. For Kroc the front of house business is just the tip of an iceberg empire, a concept well symbolised in one scene by his demanding a basement for the restaurant – a world below the surface; by contrast, what you see is what you get with the brothers. Their dreams end and float at the shop floor.
There’s a poignant and cruelly ironic, line early on in the film spoken by Mac McDonald: ‘Our whole lives we piggybacked off other people’s ideas…we wanted something that was ours’. Their McDonald’s is one built on values, so it’s a tough watch as we see them all too quickly won over by a charismatic Keaton. There are times in The Founder where the film seems to be pitched a little like a McDonald’s made company advert: all are cheerful and there’s room on the bench for everyone to chomp away at ‘the best hamburger I’ve ever had’. However, don’t expect to come away commercialised; there’s a bitterness with the bite and the joie de vivre artifice often feels surprisingly uncomfortable. Whilst not as openly scathing as Morgan Spurlock’s infamous Super Size Me, its in juxtaposition that The Founder strikes a point. Kroc compares the business he envision to an almost religious presence up and down the country: ‘the American church…and it aint just open on Sundays’. No one will be in any doubt by the end, however, of his facsimile likeness being more so to Judas than any other in the Bible. On the other hand, you may actually find yourself almost endeared towards Kroc, in the first half at any rate. It’s all a credit to Keaton naturally. Utterly ruthless and thoroughly despicable, there’s an aura to the guy reminiscent of Walt Disney, as portrayed by Tom Hanks in Hancock’s last film Saving Mr Banks. He’s optimist-cum-capitalist and just wants to succeed in life. Where’s the harm in that? $700bn later and the McDonald brothers certainly know it.
Rather like its biographical subject, The Founder is ultimately all pretty manufactured and you know exactly what you’re getting whether familiar with the story or not. Whilst Offerman and Lynch are perfectly amiable, Laura Dern hasn’t much to do as Kroc’s wife – who may or may not have a name, the film doesn’t seem to care and certainly doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. Tinkling under and over the proceedings are an easy-listening soundtrack and fairly run-of-mill work from Hancock and team. Thematic crossover is irrefutable from Saving Mr Banks, but The Founder doesn’t carry over all that much of the charm or humour in the former. There’s also plot synchronicity with 2011’s The Social Network, but whereas greys and browns represented the David Fincher, everything’s red and yellow here and there’s not nearly so much depth and intensity. The message almost appears to be: business is grim, but it’s mainly just business.
If you’ve always wanted to see The Social Network as directed by Ronald McDonald, then this will be your film of the year. For the rest of us, The Founder’s a solid work with enough quirks and drama to engage, if not enthral.